Pitt has come a long way since December. Mike Haywood is not coaching the Panthers, there is finally buzz around the football program, and the school is no longer stuck in a dead end conference. How many Panther fans saw those positives coming after January 1st?
Something changed in Pitt’s philosophy after the Haywood debacle. Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and Athletic Director Steve Pederson showed a new-found urgency regarding Pitt athletics.
Todd Graham was hired for $2 million—a price Pitt brass previously thought ridiculous. The deal made Graham one of the most well paid coaches in the Big East. And, this weekend’s news of Pitt joining the Atlantic Coast Conference cements the philosophy change.
Nordenberg and Pederson were aggressive in the ever-changing landscape of college athletics. Before the 2011 calendar year, when was the last time that Pitt was aggressive in any sports related move?
Jumping ship to the ACC will cost Pitt $5 million in exit fees. That means that in nine months the University spent a total of $7 million on coaches salaries and conference expansion costs.
Before analyzing the move’s relevance to basketball and football, first take a look at reasons behind the decision.
The Big East Conference was in a lose-lose situation. Football-wise, there is no weaker league. Even with the addition of TCU the Big East is miles behind the competition. Basketball-wise, there is no strong league. Unfortunately, eight of the Conference’s 16 members are basketball-only schools. No other BCS conference even had one basketball-only school.
The configuration was bound to eventually cause a rift. With other conferences actively looking to expand–and the Big East on already unstable ground–the appeal of stability proved too difficult for Pitt to pass on.
For those who believe the move was about money and not stability, understand that the average ACC memeber only makes $1.6 million more than the average Big East athletic member—that number is based off each school’s total athletic department profit. It is important to keep in mind that the numbers above were compiled based on the most recent financial figures. The Conference did, however, reach a 10-year, $1.86 billion television contract with ESPN. The deal will nearly double the yearly TV earnings to $155 million. Profit will increase significantly when the contract kicks in this season.
Like the ACC, the Big East was also in television contract negotiations. In fact, the Conference was looking at a new deal with ESPN believed to be worth $110 to $130 million per season. With NBC Sports and Fox missing out on the ACC contract, negotiations could have even boosted the Big East’s value beyond the $130 million mark.
Certainly, leaving a conference with a lucrative TV deal on the line for a conference that only averages $1.6 million per school, per year more than your current conference makes no sense. Especially when the exit fee is $5 million.
The only way which the move can be attributed to revenue is in the sense that the Big East may not exist in two years. Pitt wasn’t looking to make more money. Keeping the current revenue flow at a steady stream was the only financial factor in the jump.
Finally, to those who believe Nordenberg blindsided the Big East, Commissioner John Marinatto was given notice 16 months ago that Pitt would look elsewhere if the Conference didn’t pursue expansion options aggressively.
Now, to the actual analysis of the move.
Many believe that the jump was made without regard to basketball. Actually, many believe that the jump will kill Pitt basketball. Those who believe such claims are blind to the advantages that accompany the transition.
As many supporters have already proclaimed, playing Duke and North Carolina in basketball each season is a major factor. The Big East has plenty of recognizable programs, but none at the level of the Tar Heels and Blue Devils.
One negative notion that has gained steam throughout the last 48 hours is that Jamie Dixon will no longer be able to recruit well in the Philadelphia, New York, and New Jersey areas. There is some cause for concern here. helping to ease the nervousness is the fact that Rutgers and Connecticut are now also seeking ACC acceptance. If early reports are true, away games in the tri-state area will be more frequent than originally thought. Remember that Syracuse is now a member of the ACC too.
Admittedly, playing in front of friends and family is a big reason why Dixon has been able to land some recruits from that area. But, what is more important to a college player seeking a professional career: playing even more games on national television than Pitt already does, or traveling home to play a couple times per season?
One other recruiting note to consider. Dixon’s most heralded recruits over the past four seasons are Khem Birch, Steven Adams, James Robinson, Dante Taylor, and DeJuan Blair. Birch and Adams are both from different countries, Blair is from Pittsburgh, and Robinson and Taylor played high school basketball in Maryland. According to Rivals.com, the number one prospect in the country for 2009, 2010, and 2011 has come from prime ACC territory also. Perhaps Dixon’s recruiting hotbed isn’t so hot anymore.
For those basketball fans still panicking, lets go back to the possible additions of Connecticut and Rutgers. UConn joining the ACC is not an unrealistic expectation. If the Huskies follow Pitt and Syracuse the Conference will boast nine of the last 13 NCAA basketball champions. Think that is something recruits might want to hear?
Of course, the driving force behind the move was football. Even though the ACC lacks the depth of conferences like the SEC and Big Ten, the league’s top end teams are perennial National Championship contenders.
Virginia Tech, Miami (Fl), and Florida State were all expected to be in the hunt this season. Don’t forget that it was the Hokies and Hurricanes that made the Big East one of the best football conferences in the early 2000′s. After a couple of rocky seasons, there is excitement once again surrounding the three programs:
“Games at Heinz Field against Cincinnati, UConn, and Rutgers, or home games against Florida State, Miami, and Virginia Tech. Is there any doubt which is better?”
Last year North Carolina State and Maryland were two of the ACC’s four teams ranked at the end of the season. No Big East team was in last year’s final poll.
In 2009 Georgia Tech won the BCS bid and Clemson finished in the top 25. ACC football has tradition, talent, and potential. Current members have combined to appear in 14 of the last 25 National Championship games.
The ACC was also well represented at the 2011 NFL Draft. Overall, 35 players were selected. The total was good enough for second among BCS Conferences and ranked only three players behind the SEC for the lead.
In three years the ACC could be as good as any football conference in the nation. The same cannot be said for the current Big East. Realigning was the right call. Pitt could have taken their chances and waited for the Big Ten to come calling. Waiting is a dangerous game though. With the Big Twelve falling apart and the ACC scoping the Big East, the time for action is before other teams move—not after.
Pitt fans will no longer be haunted by realignment rumors, Big East expansion, or talk conference collapse. There has never been a better time to be a Panther:
“Except for winning the football national championship in 1976, this is the most important event in Pitt athletics in at least the past 60 years. Pitt squandered the legacy of Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill — 62-9-1 from 1976 through 1981 — with administrative incompetence. I have far more confidence that Mark Nordenberg and Steve Pederson will leverage this move for all that it is worth and not allow it to be wasted. Pitt is on the threshold of a grand new era, with new rivals, new opportunities and a chance for the football and men’s basketball programs to grow. Pitt athletics have never been stronger.”